LGBT Seniors Shouldn't Die Penniless and Alone
By Bruce Williams
Systemic inequities, which are finally changing, still meant a disadvantaged life now for many LGBT seniors.At 68 years old, having led a responsible and productive life, I find myself living in poverty with the prospects for the final third of my existence only getting worse. I wake each day only to hope that I will die before my funds and limited resources run out completely. I also find that I am in the company of hundreds of thousands of other LGBT seniors who, through no fault of their own, are in the same tragic and inhumane situation.
Putting aside any pride that I once may have had, I share my story in an effort to create an awareness of these inequities that have devastated the current generation of LGBT seniors.
I have worked since I was 12 years old: part-time when school was in session and full-time each weekend, during every summer recess and every day of each holiday vacation. I have paid into the Social Security system for well over 50 years — over one half of a century! At 21 years old, I assumed the responsibility for raising my three brothers and helped to care for my mom until her death from lung cancer.
In my professional career, I have gone from cleaning dirty toilets at minimum wage to serving as the executive director of a continuous care retirement community with some 500 residents and nearly 200 employees. In the late 1990s, I was earning a very comfortable six-figure salary. I have led a frugal life in an attempt to build a nest egg for my own golden years.
But LGBT seniors of today have endured a past that was and still is not at all conducive to planning and providing for a comfortable and secure retirement existence. During the working years of today’s LGBT seniors, there were four fatal bullets that prevented our financial success: We were refused employment solely on the basis of our sexual orientation, we were paid less money for equal work, we were denied promotions, and we were fired with no recourse at the whim of ignorant employers. Fortunately I was able to dodge the first three bullets, but that was only to tragically fall victim to the fourth.
I was fired because of my sexual orientation less than two months before my 25th anniversary of employment. After dedicating nearly a quarter of a century of my life to the same company, I found myself unemployed in my early 60s and looking for work during one of the most disastrous periods of our nation's economic history. Making things even worse, with absolutely no income, I was forced to accept early retirement Social Security benefits at a 25 percent reduction, a desperate decision that will negatively impact my existence for the rest of my life.
So here I am, a 68-year-old gay man who has led a productive and responsible life but who now has to work just to survive. I am fortunate enough to have found a job at the Pride Center at Equality Park in Wilton Manors, Fla., that pays me to pursue my passion of advocating for the elderly and gives me the opportunity to positively impact the lives of other LGBT seniors like me.
It is my passion in life to convince folks of the need to embrace aging and to set out on a journey to improve the “third third” of our lives. I aspire to raising awareness of the special needs of our LGBT senior population. This is a group often with far less family support, with fewer financial resources and many more societal scars than other aging populations, and at the Pride Center we provide programs that help to maintain independence, that boost mental and physical health and that provide a raison d’etre — a reason for being and enjoying life. We strive to increase the connections between service providers and our seniors in need of those services. And for those who are serving as caregivers, we offer support, education and respite to ease their burden.
Our Coffee & Conversation gathering draws nearly 200 LGBT seniors every Tuesday and serves to provide a fun and free opportunity for socialization to ward off the isolation that is so prevalent with many seniors. I solicit a different sponsor each week, which may be a long-term care facility, an elder law attorney, a home health care agency or some other business normally utilized by an aging population, so that our attendees cannot only enjoy free coffee and goodies but also build an arsenal of information about available area service providers for the times they need help the most.
The Pride Center partners with other local and national organizations to help improve the lives of LGBT seniors. In conjunction with SAGE USA we have been providing the SAGE Works program that, through a grant from the Walmart Foundation, helps LGBT seniors find work or hone their skills to get a better job. Our Fund, a Broward-based community foundation that supports the LGBT community, just recently provided a program of LGBT Cultural Competency Certification that now enables several of us from the Pride Center to go out into the community and make caregivers more aware of and sensitive to the needs of the LGBT senior community.
As a society, we have made great strides in LGBT awareness and rights that today’s LGBT seniors never expected to see in their lifetimes. Yet for myself, and for so many other LGBT seniors, change has come too late. After an exhilarating period of celebration, we settle back and wonder how our lives would have been different had the changes come during our younger years. We know one cannot reclaim missed experiences nor amass fortunes never earned. We now need to focus our efforts toward securing equality in health care, housing, and employment so that no old people have to go to bed at night hoping to die in their sleep.
Bruce Williams leads programming for LGBT elders at the Pride Center in Wilton Manors, Fla.